Amherst council split on singling out PD for anti-racism training

Staff Writer
Published: 12/16/2022 10:50:51 AM
Modified: 12/16/2022 10:50:21 AM

AMHERST — Councilors appear unified in pursuing an anti-racist culture throughout town operations, but there is disagreement over whether to direct the town manager to prioritize such training toward the Amherst Police Department, whose members have told councilors in private meetings that they are continually being targeted and feel they are under attack.

“We could potentially be making a big mistake by focusing on Amherst police,” said District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne, as the Town Council continued a discussion Monday on its policy priorities and the performance goals for Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

The debate centered on the personnel management performance goal and whether, with respect to pursuing anti-racism practices, it should include the clause “focusing first on the guidance in the Town Council’s vote on Nov. 14, 2022, to begin with the Amherst Police Department.”

That resolution was adopted as a continuing response by the Town Council to the July 5 incident in which officers interacted with a group of youths in response to a noise complaint, which has been criticized as violating the youths’ rights by the town’s Human Rights Commission and the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee.

Bahl-Milne said she worries that continually putting police under the microscope is affecting police employees, as well as their families.

“I don’t think shaming, to me that’s problematic, as a value of grace,” Bahl-Milne said.

District 1 Councilor Michele Miller said the language in the performance goal, though, is sensible as the Town Council already passed the resolution. But she understands putting emphasis on police has become a “sticky point” following meetings between councilors and officers in the police station community room. Miller said those meetings gave her pause about the approach being used.

“A bit of being in dangerous territory, honestly,” she said about the meetings, but added that she learned that police have a feeling of being targeted and attacked, and that councilors expressed to her privately concerns about how the Town Council as a whole has handled the response to July 5, and may need more time to unpack what they have learned from police.

At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker, though, who didn’t go to the sessions at the police station, said that anti-racism training is important, especially for police.

“I see this as an improvement, as something we would celebrate we are doing,” Walker said.

She said the training should go beyond four months, as described in the November resolution.

“The act of being anti-racist is the continual working on it,” Walker said. She noted that police can interact with residents in their homes and neighborhoods in ways few other municipal departments do.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis said Black, Indigenous and people of color have been mistreated by other town employees, as well.

“One of the things I’ve seen at Town Hall at different times is rather insulting behavior toward our BIPOC residents by town staff,” DeAngelis said.

She questioned the need to keep police in the council’s sights.

“Whatever the intention, this continues to hit at the men and women who feel attacked, and that doesn’t feel OK to me,” DeAngelis said.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director Pamela Nolan Young will be looking at the town holistically, thus there is no need to mention the Police Department specifically in Bockelman’s goals.

“I would agree on removing this phrase,” Schien said.

District 4 Councilor Anika Lopes said there needs to be a vision for all the town and that police already have the most training. “They’re under the highest scrutiny,” Lopes said.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam, who was unable to participate in a session with police, said she was uncomfortable with the idea of private discussions between councilors and police.

“There are people in this community who are very upset and who also have feelings, and they were not part of this conversation,” Pam said. “I think for the Police Department to only talk about what they feel and think and whatever it is, just to the Town Council, if I was one of the community people upset about July 5, I would be having an absolute fit, saying, ‘What are they doing, how do they have this special time to talk about their feelings (when) nobody cared about us.’”

The recommendation on the language for the performance goal will come from the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee, which will use the feedback to deliver a proposal to the full council, either Monday or in January.

“When they come back people can vote to amend, to keep it in or not,” Council President Lynn Griesemer said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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